Late in Aisling Walsh’s Maudie, Maud’s aunt tells her, “You’re the only one of us who ended up happy.” It’s a line that inspires a moment of unintentional laughter, because so little of Maud’s Maudie is devoted to happiness. Here is a deliberately paced, often emotionally devastating biopic focusing on the life of Nova Scotian artist Maud Lewis. Lewis suffered from arthritis, but that doesn’t stop her from creating whimsical, almost child-like paintings of birds and trees and other pleasantries.
Sally Hawkins plays Maud, and she is phenomenal. Hawkins scrunches her body up in every scene, her head hanging down, her toes pointing inward. Her physicality is that of someone immensely shy. At the start of the film, Maud has been cut out of her inheritance by her weasel of a brother (Zachary Bennett) and taken up residence with her judgmental aunt (Gabrielle Rose). She wants out from under her oppressive aunt’s home, and finds the solution by answering a want-ad for a live-in housekeeper. The ad was placed by Everett (Ethan Hawke), a frowning fishmonger more prone to grunts than conversation. Their relationship gets off to an extremely rocky start. Everett barks orders at Maud, gives her a choice between sharing his one bed or sleeping on the floor, and at one point even strikes her. Logic dictates that Maud should probably hightail it out of there, but she doesn’t have many options, and so she remains. And a curious courtship blossoms between the two, and before long they’re married.
Also blossoming is Maud’s painting, which she does seemingly with no real deeper thought. It’s just a thing to do to pass the time. But when Sandra (Kari Matchett), a bit of high class from New York City type in town for vacation, spots Maud’s work she’s enchanted. She starts paying Maud for painted postcards, and then starts inquiring about bigger works. Seemingly overnight, Maud becomes a sensation. Even Vice President Richard Nixon mails her asking for a painting. Maud’s response: “Until he sends me money I’m not sending him a painting.”
Through it all, Everett grows bewildered. He becomes the one doing the housework while Maud spends all day painting, and a fear begins to creep in that Maud will leave him. Maud, for her part, has absolutely no intention of going anywhere. For better or worse, these two people are drawn together, dwelling in Everett’s almost comically tiny house.
As a showcase for the performances of Hawkins and Hawke, Maudie excels. Hawkins, a remarkable actress who has mostly been performing small supporting roles in the last few years, gets to stand front and center here and remind audiences of her talent. She’s equally matched by Hawke, who gets to stretch his acting chops a bit. Everett is, in many ways, a detestable man, and Hawke never tries to paint him as anything else. But he also finds the humanity lurking inside him, and makes him a fully rounded character.
But Maudie is at times almost too sad for its own good, bordering on misery-porn. It’s a challenging film to watch, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But after a while the film begins to wear you down. Perhaps that’s all part of the plan, to make the audience experience a draining emotional experience similar to what all this must have been for Maud herself. Through it all, though, Maud does indeed remain happy. Even through the worst of it, she returns to her sunny paintings, content in the world she’s creating with her brushstrokes. Perhaps her aunt was right after all. She’s the only one who ended up happy.